Here is what I have learned about critiques:
FICTION: You can expect a fair, unbiased critique.
REALITY: Some people will always hate what you do (even if you are awesome) because they just don’t dig your style. Some people will get set off by a random, unpredictable aspect of your story and be completely unable to get over it enough to say anything helpful. Some people will read your story in a sloppy manner and give you a half-assed critique. Some people just don’t know how to critique, period.
FICTION: If you’re upset after a critique, you just need to toughen up and take it. After all, you need a thick skin to succeed as a writer.
REALITY: Some critiques are harsh in a constructive way. Some critiques are harsh in a non-constructive way. Some critiques are just plain mean-spirited. Learn to deal with the first of these. The other two? Consider not getting critiqued by these people again or…
FICTION: Take all critiques into thoughtful consideration.
REALITY: Some critiques you can pretty much ignore. That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen while they’re being given, but after a while you can tell which critiques are completely irrelevant to any learning or revising you might be doing.
FICTION: You need critiques to become better as a writer.
REALITY: There are many ways to become better as a writer. The critique is merely one helpful tool among many. After all, there were still great writers before the current fad for critique.
FICTION: You should implement all suggestions given in a good critique.
REALITY: You should listen to the issues a good critiquer is having, and figure out what you, the writer, want to do about it. Often critiquers try to completely retell your story for you (although I wouldn’t personally call this a good critique). In that case, you need to work backwards to figure out what actually wasn’t working for them, and then change it in your own way. And only if you want to.
FICTION: A critique should always be followed by a revision.
REALITY: As long as you’ve learned something from a critique, it doesn’t matter what you do afterwards. Sometimes you need to revise to complete the learning. Sometimes you want to revise. Sometimes you want to chuck the story into the fire and never think of it again. Sometimes you nod, say hmm, and make a few small changes before submitting. Sometimes, if you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you submit the story before the critique so you’re not tempted to revise the life out of your story. (And oh yes, it is so possible to revise your story to death.)
FICTION: If a person is a “pro” or just has a few more credits than you, their word is God in the critique department.
REALITY: I wish. Some pros are amazing teachers and critiquers. Others, not so much. Some people with more credits than you will have amazingly helpful things to tell you about your work. Others will not. Some readers who know nothing about writing will have insights that are equally useful. And some will not. You get the picture.
FICTION: You should be involved in as much critiquing as possible.
REALITY: If you get too involved in critiquing, it might interfere with finding time to do the actual writing. And most of us ultimately want to be WRITERS, not critiquers. Right? Otherwise why would we be putting ourselves through all this?
FICTION: If you can’t handle a critique, you shouldn’t be a writer.
REALITY: If you can’t handle rejection and revision requests from professional editors and agents (who you are doing business with), then you’re going to have some trouble. If you can’t handle the occasional critique (or even the more than occasional critique), maybe something else is going on.
FICTION: Critique trumps all!
REALITY: It’s more important to manage your writing life in whatever way works for you. And if your way is not exactly the same as everyone else’s way, that’s okay. We’re artists, after all. We’re supposed to be different.
Okay, have at it! Disagree with me (or tell me how you’ve been secretly thinking the same thing). I’m going in for more dental torture this morning (if we ever meet in person and you want to see me cry, mention dentistry), but I’ll be commenting with gusto (and pain-induced bravado) later today.